Universe World

Creating engaging science content, from social media to illustrated books

Let's travel to the Czech Republic to explore science communication on social media and in the publishing world with planetary scientist Petr Brož
Petr Broz
Petr Brož. Credits: Khalil Baalbaki, Český rozhlas
This month, Universe World visits the Czech Republic, or Czechia, where we meet planetary scientist, science communicator and bestselling author Petr Brož, exploring how to engage the public with scientific content on social media and in the publishing world.

Let’s start from you: what’s your current position, what did you study and what else led you here?
The path to my current job was not at all straightforward. Like many others, I didn’t know what I wanted to study next after high school. While I enjoyed space, I gave up studying astrophysics in college before the end of my first semester. Too much physics and math for me, so I decided to quit. After that I worked for two years making electrical switchboards in a Czech factory and later as a kitchen porter and cook in Ireland. However, during this period I decided that I wanted to learn more about our planet so I applied to Charles University in Prague to study at the crossroads of ecology and geology.
During my studies I discovered Wikipedia and started writing articles there. It didn’t take long before I was writing articles about Solar System bodies and space exploration. Another Wikipedian noticed this and asked me if I would like to go on an unpaid internship at the DLR, the German Aerospace Center,  in Berlin. I enthusiastically agreed and soon after I was sitting in a windowless room drawing lines on a computer in the attempt to separate individual volcanoes on the surface of Mars in images taken by the European Mars Express spacecraft! What an experience! I instantly fell in love with this job. Exploring something on the surface of another world? It was irresistible.
When I came back to the Czech Republic after a month, I knew I wanted to do my bachelor’s thesis on volcanic activity on the surface of Mars. I later returned to Berlin for a six-month Erasmus internship, continuing my research on Martian volcanoes, which I then turned into my master’s thesis. And that’s when I fully realised this was something I would enjoy doing in my life, so I started looking around the Czech Republic where I would be able to work on this topic. And I got the opportunity at the Institute of Geophysics of the Czech Academy of Sciences, where I still work today.

Can you tell our readers a bit about the context of astronomy, planetary and space science in the Czech Republic?
The Czech Republic, with its ten and a half million inhabitants, is a relatively small country. Despite this, there are many excellent researchers and teams working in fields related to the research of the Solar System, planets, and space in general. We have world-leading experts dedicated to determining the impact regions of bolides, researching lightnings on a number of planets, or icy moons and what is happening beneath their surface. But we also have people doing research into astronautics and spaceflight, and there are a number of companies that are making fundamental equipment, like the startup TRL Space System at the Brno Space Cluster.
However, to be honest, it took me quite a long time to discover all these interesting people and companies. Most of them are outside what I enjoy – researching the rocky planets of the Solar System. This is a field that really only a handful of people in the Czech Republic are involved in.

Czech Academy Of Sciences
The main building of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague. Credits: Pavlína Jáchimová / Akademie věd ČR

You are also very active in public outreach of planetary science. Let’s talk about that…
I’ve actually been popularizing planetary sciences longer than I am working as a researcher! Back in high school, a friend and I set up a simple website where I wrote articles about what was going on around the Solar System, and apparently this stayed with me over 25 years! I was just doing it from the position of a passionate amateur and today people look at me as an expert.
Over last 25 years, I have tried every possible – and impossible – way to popularize geosciences and planetary sciences. I started with the easiest one – writing. At the beginning I wrote short articles for my website, later I started editing the Czech Wikipedia – which was, by the way, a great way to learn how to work with sources and to use a vocabulary that most of the population understands. Later I wrote for Czech magazines and newspapers but also started giving live talks. I must add here that I was incredibly nervous at the beginning. The first time I spoke on live national television, I fainted during the broadcast. Yeah, that was the beginning! But you learn how to do it in the end and now I have no problem speaking anytime, anywhere. Television, radio, public lectures…

What about social media?
Over time, I realized that if one wants to popularize science today, one has to get into social media as well. After all, it is content from social networks that many people see as a first thing in the morning and fall asleep with it as well. So to reach a really wide audience with scientific content, one needs to go to the jungle of social networks. And, of course, to adapt the form of the message to the style of the platform.
People go on social networks because they want to be entertained. So if you want to succeed with your content in that environment, you have to meet that audience need and come up with a form that people will enjoy. You also have to reduce the vocabulary you use and not be afraid to simplify some complex things. Not all scientists are comfortable with this, of course. However, if we don’t put ourselves out there with scientific content in a light form, someone else will fill that space instead of us. Someone who might have no problem reporting non-scientific content or crazy theories… This is also the reason for me to try to produce content for Twitter/X, YouTube, or even TikTok. There needs to be someone from the community out there showing the beauty of science! Even in my native language.

Petr Broz Talk Show
Petr Brož as a guest of Czech tv talkshow 7 pádů Honzy Dědka. Credits: Teki Shine, FTV Prima

You definitely explored many media to communicate with the public. What is your favourite?
In the last few years, I’ve probably enjoyed coming up with content for social media the most. I enjoy the immediate feedback one gets on their popularization efforts. And I enjoy the variety of work that this entails: one minute you’re a graphic designer, the next a director, the next an editor! You have to know a little bit of everything if you want to be able to manage your Twitter, YouTube, or TikTok profiles well.
On the other hand, it should be added that sometimes the feedback can be significantly negative and you have to take that into account! Hence, for sure, it is not for everybody. Being on social media can be significantly toxic, so it’s important not to get sucked in completely, to keep a distance from what’s happening on social media and not be afraid to mute or block toxic accounts. Acting as a science communicator on social media is in many areas more complex than other, so-called traditional, ways that are usually used to communicate science. But I enjoy playing with different social medias and finding new ways to get science-oriented content to people.
And since I’m of a generation that may have grown up on computers, but at a time when the keyboard was the main communication tool, not the camera, I still don’t really enjoy making videos, I prefer to write content. But I know that times have changed and that the younger generation wants mainly audiovisual content anymore, so I try to adapt.

Vesmirnicek Petr Lucie
Petr Brož, author of Vesmírníček, with illustrator Lucie Škodová. Credits: Adam Pýcha, Knihy Dobrovský
Recently you also wrote an illustrated book for children that became a bestseller in the Czech Republic. How did this project start? Tell us more…
The book is called “Vesmírníček” (which means “Astronaut”) and after a year and a half, approximately 19,000 copies have been sold. It was such a great success that we are just finishing the sequel, which will be launched later this year. While in the first part we traveled around the Solar System and tried to understand the geological processes that take place there, in the second part we will search for extraterrestrial life!
It all started for me quite subtly. Around the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, I virtually settled from Facebook to Twitter, where I started writing popular science threads about various aspects of Solar system exploration. Pretty soon my threads gained a lot of attention and I started to be followed first by hundreds, then thousands of people. People liked the way I communicated the findings of my field and they wanted to learn more. This motivated me to generate more content, which was liked by more people… you where this is going.
Then someone once tweeted at me and asked if I’d send my email address as he wanted to ask me something privately. So I sent him my contact and the next day I got an email with the offer to write a book for his publishing house. I went straight to call him because I was curious to know exactly what he envisioned I should possibly create. I didn’t really want to make a book, but I wanted to explore what was behind the offer. During the call, I asked him three questions. Who would the book be for, and he said it was up to me. Then I asked what exactly the book was going to be about, and he said it was up to me again. And then I asked him how much money he had for it, and he said it was up to me again! It’s a funny story to me to this day as I got the offer that a lot of aspiring writers dream of. To have a completely free hand and someone who’s willing to finance it. And to a person who never actually wanted to write a book and just enjoyed popularizing geoscience and Solar System exporation on social media in his spare time in the evenings!

Wow, that is quite a story. Definitely not something that happens to everyone. How did you find an illustrator to work on the project?
That was easy. The illustrator of my book, Lucie Škodová, is a long-time friend. We’ve known each other for over 20 years. When I got the offer, I thought for a while about who I wanted to do the book for and I thought young children and their parents. It was clear at that moment that I would need someone to draw the illustrations. Lots of illustrations! So I called Lucie with a rough idea of what I wanted, and then together we worked out the idea further. We figured out a rough budget of how much we’d like to be financially rewarded for creating such a book and sent the amount to the publisher. To our surprise, within five minutes I received a reply saying “yes, no problem” and that we were agreed. A speed that I am not used to from the scientific world at all. And so it was, we were going to make a children’s book.

Vesmirnicek Mars English
A chapter from the book Vesmirnicek in English. Credits: Petr Brož & Lucie Škodová / Knihy Dobrovský

Your book had incredible commercial success: it was the 2023 bestselling children’s book in the Czech Republic, made it to the final of the most prestigious Czech literary competition, Magnesia Litera, and also raised interest from abroad. What do you think made it such a success?
It wasn’t until much later that I learned from the publisher that the genre of children’s literature is one of the most difficult and few succeed in it. Especially for the first time… However, Lucie and I obviously nailed it. What was the key to success? Firstly, the incredibly beautiful illustrations bringing to life the diverse geological phenomena taking place across the Solar System that Lucie and I invented together. As anyone who picks up the book can see, Lucie has drawn a beautiful piece of artwork, with many small jokes tucked in. You will love the book at first sight for sure! But that alone wouldn’t be enough to make it a success.
The second ingredient is that the book is written in a language that everyone can understand, no matter their education background. Anyone can learn in simple language the incredibly complex but fascinating events that take place in the Solar System. And that appeals not only to children, but also to their parents. So I succeeded in doing what I wanted to do from the beginning: I wanted the children to read the book together with their parents and talk about what they were reading together, thus deepening their interest in space exploration. The book was written from the beginning to reach two different audiences that are over 20-30 years apart in age. This is important because, if the parents are also entertained by the book, they are much more likely to buy it: rarely do 6 to 8 year old children go to bookstores… adults buy books for them as they are those with the money. So if you want a book to be a commercial hit, you have to make it funny for adults as well.

Do you have any other advice to colleagues who also have a similar idea, how to turn it into an actual book?
If I were to give advice to aspiring writers, it would probably be to try and create a text that is simple and easy to understand. At that point, you stand a chance of reaching a much larger audience!

Magnesia Libera Award
Petr Brož, second from the left, first row, with the other finalists of Czech literary competition Magnesia Litera. Credits: Magnesia Litera

We mentioned your social media activity earlier, with almost 30k followers on Czech Twitter. Did you get a boost after the book was published? Or vice versa, was your social media presence a leverage to spread the news about the book?
I honestly don’t remember how many people were following me when I started working on the book: 10k, 15k, or more? Who knows. I would say that the growth of my followers is organic and more related to the content I am publishing than the fact that I have a book out. However, something incredible has happened to me because of the large number of followers. Because I do not only create content but also answer questions people have on geosciences, I have built up a wide community following me for a long time, and also supporting me. That support is something that has blown my mind, but also the publisher’s.
When I started working on the book, I often shared some snippets about it on Twitter to build anticipation among my followers. Approximately three months before the book was to be officially released, the pre-order option was launched, without possibility to preview the book. Within one day, approximately 100 people pre-ordered the book, which no one had seen before and which didn’t even exist yet because Lucie and I were still working on it. We immediately shot to the top of the publishing house’s sales chart and grew with each passing day…

Did you offer any perks to your community?
I promised that every book people ordered in the pre-sale would be signed by Lucie and me. When the release day came, Adam Pýcha, representative of the publishing house Knihy Doborvský, called to tell us to bring a snack to the signing. We didn’t really understand what he meant with that: we thought we would sign a couple of books and go home. When we arrived at the distribution center, there were two pallets full of books waiting for us to sign them. People took the pre-sale by storm and ordered over 1200 books! An incredible number considering the size of the Czech market. We achieved sales that other books will never achieve! And here I have to say it again, despite the fact that no one had actually seen the book until then.
My followers figured that, if they enjoy the content I create on Twitter, they’ll enjoy the book, and they worked a miracle. Then, of course, the publishing house jumped in promoting the book through their official channels. Soon the advertising was everywhere. In the Prague metro, on TV, on the radio, in magazines, on the internet… People who had already read the book started recommending it to others and, within a month, the entire print run of 5000 copies of the book was sold out. The publishing house was in danger of having nothing to sell before Christmas, so shortly after publication a reprint was ordered, and shortly after that another, and two more recently.

Vesmirnicek Firmacopie
Petr Brož and Lucie Škodová signing Vesmírníček copies ordered in pre-sale. Credits: Adam Pýcha, Knihy Dobrovský

This is a terrific outcome, congratulations. The book was also translated into several languages. How did that happen?
I don’t know exactly. I’ve received news from the publisher that the rights to the book have been sold to several countries, but I haven’t seen a foreign language copy yet. So I don’t know if the book has actually been published elsewhere or the current status of the release. I’ve had reports that it’s supposed to be published in China, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia… But it wasn’t much of a job for me as an author.
The only version I’ve actually seen is the English version. The publisher created it as an electronic PDF file, but so far it doesn’t seem to have found a partner in the English-speaking market who would be willing to publish it and distribute it there. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it will be successful in the near future.

Any more countries coming up? Italy, for example?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like there is a partner in Italy yet. However, if anyone reading this interview is interested in publishing the book on the Italian market, or knows who we should contact, please let me know! I’d be very happy if the book manages to get out in Italy too.

Did your life change after publishing the book?
What changed after the publication of “Vesmírníček” is that many people began to see me as a writer, not as a scientist, and definitely a lot more people outside of social media know me now.
Incidentally, my second book named “Geostorky”, which is about incredible phenomena from geosciences, was published in the autumn of 2023. It sold about 5000 copies to date, achieving a similar pre-sale success. Again, my followers decided to order over a thousand copies before it was actually on store shelves. So my experience shows how important it is when one manages to create a devoted community of followers on social media. And it’s also one of my pieces of advice to people on social media who are thinking about one day wanting to break into the writing field, try to build a community around your profile. It can help you in an incredible way, whether you succeed in your dream or not.

Petr Broz Geostorky
Geostorky, the second book by Petr Brož, in the bookshop. Private archive of Petr Brož
From this extensive experience, what would you say are the major challenges for a science communicator and educator today, in your country?
The first is a different generational view of the channels through which science should be popularized. I grew up with social media, so it’s a very natural environment for me, and I take social media presence as a part of my personal life. For that reason, I think we as scientists should be active and visible there too. It’s just that there are a lot of older people who don’t have that perspective as they grew up in different times: they just see social media as a necessary evil. When I talk about plans to make science more popular at work, I often find that social media is not really considered as a channel we should invest our time – and when it is, it’s in a way that has no chance of reaching the younger generation… And conversely, the way that can reach the younger generation is not supported by the older generation.
And from this comes the second pitfall. I don’t create content for social media during working hours, but in my spare time in the evenings. So I’m not paid to create it and it’s not part of my job description: my effort to show geosciences to a wide public is something extra I have to spend time with. Yes, it can be managed if one has it as a hobby, but on the other hand, the question is for how long. Plus, it’s frustrating to see how it works for other, similarly successful accounts. Often you see behind them a team of people: someone does graphics, someone edits videos, someone does research, someone answers comments, etc. But when you do it in your spare time, it’s hard to get a similar professional background. And if you wanted to change that and create a team to do it, you’d stumble because of the different generational understanding of the role of social media and the presence of scientists on it.

What about global challenges for science communication?
When I look at it from a global perspective, the biggest problem I see is that we as scientists are not very good at communicating the results of our research in a language that can be understood by the general public. Science is thus marginalised or the knowledge of it is extremely superficial. I understand why this is: often we are researching something incredibly complex, and it is not easy to simplify it into a few hundred characters. And then it’s even more difficult to bring those few hundred characters to the forefront of timelines of our social media. Especially in these information-overloaded times. However, I think that if we don’t learn how to communicate scientific knowledge to the general public in the long term, science will not do well.

What are the most exciting and most difficult parts in your job?
If we talk about popularization of science, the most difficult aspect is arranging all those lectures in schools, museums, observatories and so on. One spends a lot of time arranging, yet as I have taught in over 350 classes in the last 5 years or so, I just need to know when and where to be and know the topic to be honest. Then I’ll be able to solve everything on the spot as I need just a table and marker. I could really use an assistant, but unfortunately in the scientific world, unlike the commercial world, it is not customary. I say this here mainly because anyone planning to get their outreach career off to a good start should think about this. A lot of time will be spent not on actually communicating scientific knowledge, but on answering emails. Many emails…
And the most fun part is of course that one is constantly learning something newì. Every time you get a question that you don’t know the answer to yet, so then you have to look it up. You have to look for new topics to popularize your field… It’s a never-ending journey of discovery!

Petr Broz Vulcano
Petr Broz giving a public lecture about volcanoes. Credits: Science Café Zlín

Are there any authors, books, people or special events that influenced you along your journey?
When I was younger, certainly a number of science fiction authors. I always enjoyed learning about technology, space, or even aliens through funny stories. It’s a great way to impart knowledge in an entertaining way. If you look at my work on social media today, I often draw on this concept. People like stories a lot more than just listing facts.
I really enjoy the work of Kim Stanley Robinson and his Mars trilogy. In the scientific field, my inspiration is definitely the book “Island on Fire” by the author duo Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe, who managed to describe an Icelandic volcanic eruption that changed the course of history in an incredibly exciting and readable way. This is a way of showing me how my field can be brilliantly popularized and one day I would like to achieve such level of storytelling. And then I also like the way Robin George Andrews writes his popular science texts for various web journals. If you read them, you’ll see how he always uses a specific person to portray something interesting from geosciences, works with drama, and uses a lot of similes that everyone can easily understand. I can definitely only recommend that you follow him on Twitter (or elsewhere).
If you want to popularize science well, it pays to look at what is currently flying among people. That is, take inspiration from successful accounts that may not have any scientific content at all. Because over time, you’ll notice that it doesn’t really matter whether you want to promote scientific content or something else: the tools to do it are the same, you just have to be aware of that and not be afraid of using a form that is not so common for science communication. And importantly, never rest on your laurels and watch the world change around you. You need to keep moving with people who eventually leave some social networks and move on to others.

Petr Brož is a planetary scientist at the Institute of Geophysics of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague. He researches the processes taking place on the surfaces of the terrestrial bodies in the Solar System – planets and moons – with a special interest into martian volcanoes. He obtained his PhD in 2015 at the Charles University in Prague, completing interships during his studies at the DLR (Germany) and Open University (UK). He published two bestselling books in the Czech Republic: “Vesmírníček” and “Geostorky”. You can find him on X/Twitter at @Chmee2.

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Claudia Mignone Claudia Mignone

Astrofisica e comunicatrice scientifica, tecnologa all'Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica.